I like to tell stories of changed hearts and lives. The problem is that most projects and big ideas aren’t produced for the pure joy of a changed heart, but to satisfy the need to raise awareness, sell a product or make an ask. Even if our intent is noble, storytelling and marketing are inherently different – one is art, and the other is commerce. So how do you reconcile them?
The challenge for the storyteller is to focus on what makes a story great, not what makes for a good transaction. I tell people, give me the fruit, not the seed. Show me a life that has been changed for the better. If we focus on a changed life, then the call to action will take care of itself. [bctt tweet=”If we focus on a changed life, then the call to action will take care of itself.”]
Ron Dawson is one of the filmmakers I work with in my role as Peachtree’s Creative Director. He understands this tension well.
Our goal was to raise awareness for women caught in sex trafficking.
We recently hired Ron to tell the story of a Peachtree mission trip to support an ongoing effort to rescue girls from Kolkata’s sex trafficking industry. To be clear, our church members don’t turn into 007s. An amazing team of heroes actually “extracts” the girls from the brothels, at risk to their lives, and then our church members help to minster to them once they’re safe in a recovery home. But to the members, it’s still a harrowing job, and one that exposes you to what Ron described as the very gates of hell.
Here’s the final piece we showed in worship:
The secret is to find the story.
As a documentary (non-fiction) filmmaker, Ron understands that his primary job isn’t to make the story, but to “find the story,” which is a very different thing. It’s an assumption, made in faith, that an amazing story already exists somewhere, and your job is to extract it.
In every film Ron and I create together, we not only talk about setting and people and goals, but about the core story on which we’re going to build the film. Sometimes, that story doesn’t emerge until we’re in production. In this case, the question was whether the story would come from the home or from the Peachtree people who went on the trip. Both are worthy angles, and sometimes the filmmaker can’t know which will work until he or she is in the thick of it.
In a recent post about the project, Ron talks about how he used his knowledge of storytelling to capture what’s going on with this dramatic ministry.
The challenge is to learn to think like a storyteller.
I’m sure you’ve seen a documentary style that captures multiple eyewitness angles and perspectives on an event. It’s a common technique – one that reality TV uses a lot to recap what happened “on set.” It’s a safe approach, because multiple interviews give you options in post-production; with many voices, you’re more likely to find one that captures the experience. Ron would have been safe to employ such a technique.
But he saw an opportunity for something greater. In the post, Ron describes how, as he got into the story, he recognized elements of the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey in one of the women on the trip. Here is how Ron decided what to do:
I had to make a conscious decision whether to do a more straightforward documentary approach where I interview everyone and give relatively equal play to all involved, versus focusing on Brittney’s story. Neither way is right or wrong. But there was something about the mother-daughter connection and the hero’s journey of Brittney that inspired me.
Ron went with his heart and took a risk that followed his understanding of what makes for a good story. The result above speaks for itself.
The takeaway is to study the storytelling techniques.
The clear application here is to learn what makes for a good story.
This isn’t just a cool tip for filmmakers. We’re all storytellers. If you want to communicate today, you need to understand the power of story and how to leverage it to express an idea. I know a lot of people in the church world who talk about how great story is, but I don’t know many who know how to compose a good story. My advice is to learn how to tell a story.
You can get lost in the details, but the point is, once you know the techniques, you can recognize them in any situation, whether you’re a filmmaker, a pastor, a public speaker, an educator, a businessperson, or what have you. As you gain experience, you can learn like Ron how to spot and compose a story in your mind, right on the spot, in such a way that will resonate with your audience.
How can storytelling help you accomplish your big ideas?